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Planning to manage your own SD-WAN? It’s not for everyone

Tech Trends · Nov 11, 2020

Software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) deployments continue to grow like wildfire, including among mid-size businesses. In an IDC global survey conducted last year, 95% of organizations said they’ll be using SD-WAN by 2022.

Based on some of the marketing around SD-WAN, you might think it will be a straightforward addition to your internal IT portfolio. In practice though, many businesses find provisioning and supporting their own SD-WAN a lot more complicated than they expected. In fact, many who start off with the “DIY” approach eventually end up hiring a managed service provider (MSP) to take over.

It’s not impossible to manage your own SD-WAN, but it’s not something that every IT organization is positioned to do well—or should even want to do well. Which side of the fence does your business fall on? To find out, ask yourself the following questions.

The SD-WAN self-survey

How does your company prefer to pay for IT?

Some companies are masters at using depreciation to make capital expenditures (CapEx) work for their business. Most, however, prefer to use operational budget (OpEx) for IT investments whenever possible. They find the utility model of a managed service—where you can adopt and support a new technology for a predictable recurring fee—makes things a lot easier.

If you’re running your own SD-WAN solution, expect to navigate some complicated pricing. With add-on support contracts and licensing that can change every time you turn on a new feature, you might be looking at ongoing administrative headaches.

Do you have the in-house skills to design, provision, and support SD-WAN?

SD-WAN technology can enable a more efficient, more flexible, and better-performing network. To get there though, someone has to translate your real-world business requirements into the language of network configurations and policies. Tuning an SD-WAN solution for your unique environment can be a far more complex project than some organizations realize.

Ongoing support can also present challenges. Every SD-WAN solution offers cloud-based tools, but just because those tools exist, that doesn’t mean your staff has the time or expertise to use them effectively. Many companies find the incident management/change management requirements alone quickly get overwhelming. If you have a mature IT organization with a deep bench of skilled professionals, you can probably make it work. If you don’t, acquiring (and retaining) people with advanced SD-WAN skills can be very difficult, especially for mid-sized businesses.

There’s currently no industrywide certification track for SD-WAN, since the technology is still relatively new, and each vendors’ solution works differently. And keep in mind, if you’re looking to hire an expert in Viptela or VeloCloud or another SD-WAN solution as a full-time employee (FTE), those people are scarce. You’ll be competing with large multinationals and big-name tech companies in an effort to land them.

How and where is your business growing?

The more dynamic your business, the more likely you are to appreciate using a managed SD-WAN service. If you’re entering a new market, for example, you’re likely looking at a big spike in the IT resources you’ll need while you expand—even if you’re unlikely to sustain that growth rate. Trying to map those needs to FTE hires can get complicated.

A managed SD-WAN, on the other hand, scales linearly, so moving into new regions is a comparatively trivial process. Need to turn up 10 new sites? You know exactly what that will cost. Additionally, a large national MSP almost certainly has resources already in place wherever you’re expanding.

Will building up internal SD-WAN expertise advance your business’ core objectives?

Before trying to add an SD-WAN expert to your organization (or investing in building those skills with your existing team), you should think through whether that will offer the best bang for your buck. Keep in mind, SD-WAN technology is still evolving, so any training investments will likely need to be ongoing. And, as noted, people with advanced SD-WAN skills are hot commodities on the job market right now. Whether you hire an FTE or develop your own experts in-house, can you count on those resources sticking around long-term?

If your business relies on networking for strategic advantage, it may make sense to take on the costs and risks of building up in-house SD-WAN skills. If that’s not the case—if you just need your network to stay up and running at a reasonable price—it probably doesn’t.

What do you want your staff actually doing with their time?

If you do choose to manage your own SD-WAN, you can expect your team to spend a lot of time on the basics, such as provisioning changes and responding to simple alarms. So, it’s fair to ask: Is that what you want them doing with their time? Is overseeing that effort what you want to be doing with your time?

As technology plays an ever-larger role in business, many C-suite executives are asking for more from their IT leaders. They want more strategic guidance on using IT investments to better meet business needs—not just people who can keep the lights on. If you’re looking ahead over the next few years, how much time do you want your team spending on more strategic initiatives, versus responding to network alarms?

The smarter choice for many businesses: managed SD-WAN

After weighing the benefits and drawbacks of a DIY approach, there’s a good chance you’ll opt for a managed SD-WAN solution. After all, when your SD-WAN works like a utility, it falls to your MSP to deal with most of the operational hassles and complexity. It's not surprising then that 74% of businesses prefer some form of managed support from their SD-WAN provider, according to a 2020 report from IDG Communications.

By working with an MSP to provision and support your SD-WAN, you can:

  • Reduce risk: Building up in-house SD-WAN expertise works well for some companies, but it does carry some significant risks: That the technology will actually work and not disrupt your business. That you’ll be able to handle unexpected problems that inevitably crop up. That, if you need to make major changes, you’ll be able to do it quickly and cost-effectively. If you’re using an MSP, those risks are theirs to manage, not yours. And, if something goes wrong, you only have to deal with one vendor--a single point of contact--to get to a resolution.

  • Increase business agility: SD-WAN technologies continue to evolve. If you need to transition to a different vendor or solution in the future, you won’t need to fund a significant retraining and integration project, since most of that burden falls on your MSP. You can also make changes sooner, since you’re not waiting for a massive capital investment to depreciate. Finally, you gain the freedom to move into new regions and attack new opportunities more quickly, knowing your MSP likely has resources already on the ground for any implementation, integration, or support requirements.

  • Expand access to top-level expertise: When you work with an MSP, you can tap into the knowledge and experience of advanced SD-WAN experts. This can be especially valuable for mid-size companies that would struggle to hire and retain that kind of talent on their own.

  • Focus internal resources on strategic business priorities: As your team devotes more time to supporting core business objectives—and less to day-to-day network management—you’re likely to enjoy your jobs more, even as you make yourselves more valuable to the company.

Find out more

At TELUS, we’re helping companies across Canada bring the benefits of SD-WAN to their organizations—without the operational headaches and risk. To learn more about how we can help, contact TELUS Business today.

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Authored by:
TELUS Business
Bryan Lashley